Toilet: Feminist when Convenient only.

Toilet is a love story, but it’s also a film with an agenda – raising awareness about sanitation needs in India. This is an agenda absolutely worthy of praise, but as Mayuri Bhattacharjee wrote yesterday on Feminism in India, Toilet portrays at least as many problematic behaviours and ideals as progressive ones. In particular, the film unquestioningly romanticises behaviour that can only be described as stalking.

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Image Source: http://www.lehren.com

The storyline runs something like this. Boy (Keshav) meets girl (Jaya), they fall in love, marry, and when Jaya discovers there’s no toilet in her new husband’s family home the main storyline (about the struggles of building toilets and establishing sanitation) begins. For angles on the sanitation aspect, see Bhattacherjee’s article. However by this point in the movie I, like many others, had already been turned off by the portrayal of Keshav and Jaya’s developing romance.

Keshav first catches sight of Jaya in a public place. His eyes pop out of his and he bothers her by physically getting in her way and spouting tired pick-up lines while he’s at it. He then proceeds to follow Jaya everywhere, secretly taking photographs of her without her permission, even going so far as to use one of her pictures in a public advertisement for his cycle shop. When Jaya comes to his office to ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing, he steals her phone number and start to harass her that way as well. After being told ‘no’ a few more times that should be necessary (i.e. once), Keshav desists, at which point Jaya develops Stockholm Syndrome, misses his attention, and starts chasing him instead.

Stalking is a tired and frustrating trope in an absurdly large number of Bollywood movies. In my opinion, what makes these attitudes even more prominent in Toilet is their juxtaposition with condemnations of eve-teasing and several positive assertions of women’s rights. The film’s opening, for example, shows Jaya throwing a coconut at a man who is sexually harassing women in the street and him falling into a pile of manure. In other places the conservative custom of women having to cover their heads before elders is rejected, and much is made of Jaya being a ‘topper’ in her class. The fact she’s brainy is posited as one of the major reasons she is attractive. However this positive attitude towards women’s rights in certain contexts is undermined not just by the normalisation of harassment, but also a wider failure to recognise and challenge assumptions about women and femininity that result in a sustained, systematic disempowerment of women.

I was struck that only the women in the film are shown as having major problems with going to the toilet outside. The discomfort of Jaya is the main source of change, and the justification of her position is ultimately supported by a rebellion of the village women and an episode relating to Keshav’s aging grandmother (perhaps the only women Keshav’s hyper-religious father would need to ‘respect’). Whilst it is true that women are more likely to face problems such as sexual harassment when defecating outside this is due to underlying attitudes in society, as is the fact that women in rural India are forced to walk long distances and hide to relieve themselves whilst men (as is shown in the film) may squat quite openly nearer to the house or even in the view of others. This inequality, both in representation and in real life experience, is linked to notions of shame surrounding women’s bodies and bodily functions. By not raising the issue of whether men experience discomfort or are exposed to health risks more prevalently in the film I feel this aspect, which structurally underlies much of the problem, has also been allowed to slide. Whilst biological plumbing may make urination a less messy affair for men than women, I find it difficult to believe that anything other than social attitudes makes men more ‘comfortable’ with defecating in a bush than women.

The apparent contradiction and hypocrisy found in Toilet’s representations of women is in fact significant and instructive. Many individual members of society (Indian or otherwise) unconsciously live out these kinds of hypocrisies every day of their lives. A large number of well-meaning people actively profess liberal, progressive ideas about women’s rights and gender equality, but can be found to maintain patriarchal and gender-biased social scripts at other times when it suits them. Very often such people are not aware of the contradiction, and do not consider themselves to be behaving hypocritically. It’s about where they are in their personal journey. Toilet’s split-personality approach to women’s freedoms reminds us that not only is it possible to hold contradictory beliefs, but also that old habits (including thinking habits) die hard. We need to continue to resist the normalised everyday assumptions about women and women’s behaviour without complacency, because progress isn’t like flipping a switch or a one-time, holistic realisation that changes a person completely. Progress is a fractured, patchwork process, and we have to be prepared to tackle attitudes and behaviours (within society, with others, and even with ourselves) one idea at a time.

Opera Republic(?) – Review: English Touring Opera – Tosca

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On Thursday 9th March I took ten Music GCSE student to see their first opera at Hackney Empire. To say these students are from a deprived social and educational context is an understatement – they live in a working-class area of London, and the demographic of their school shows that students available for Free School Meals, Pupil Premium is well above the national average (in fact 3-4 times the national average), whilst the number of students with English as a Foreign Language, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is at a similar rate. I’ve had the absolute pleasure this year of leading their GCSE studies, and have found them to be absurdly talented in music. They are no less capable than students who will have many more opportunities than they have – one of the Y11s, for instance, has secured a scholarship to the Royal College of Music Saturday school.

I wanted to share my love of Opera with these students because I feel that Opera at its best stretches the musical and theatrical art forms to its limits. I wanted them to experience something that would be unlike anything they’d seen, and find out what their reaction was as much as anything else. From the outset I felt that this would be make or break. If their first experience was a bad one they wouldn’t come back a second time. I felt that top quality performance had to be combined with accessible prices and venue, and for that the English Touring Opera was the obvious choice. It also had to be something that could in some way give a reasonably meaningful flavour of this vast and diverse genre.

 

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Image Source : exeternorthcott.co.uk

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The production for ETO’s Tosca was relatively simple (this is to be expected of a touring company for practical reasons). The stage was divided into levels which was sometimes effective, and at other times distracting. The smaller stage size (compared with other opera venues) did sometimes feel inhibiting in terms of action. There was less opportunity for movement and use of space during the deliver of arias, resulting in a somewhat more ‘recital’-esque feel, with less sense of integration between the theatrical/acting component of the opera and its musical presentation.

The singing was utterly top class, especially from Tosca herself. As there is a split cast and I didn’t manage to get my hands on a programme that evening I can’t be entirely sure, but I think we had the pleasure of Laura Mitchell. Her expression and the scope of her sound were exquisite. The set really came into its own for Tosca’s final fall, with the extreme height created producing an even more compelling ending than usual, although it wasn’t apparent why the guards would stand at the foot of a ladder and make no attempt to prevent her jump for a good number of minutes before it actually occurred.

The relationship between Tosca and Cavaradossi was youthful, playful and exciting. It was very accessible to the young audience I brought with me, being very much alive and believable rather than formal or scripted as can sometimes be the case in Opera. Scarpia’s coldness made good sense of his chilling behaviour, and at times his gestures were shockingly, blackly humourous.

For people who enjoy opera this is a production well worth going to. Moreover, for those who are new to Opera it is also an excellent introduction.

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Image Source : http://www.englishtouringopera.org.uk

Going to the Opera with these students and seeing it through their eyes opened mine to what Opera can be like in an entirely new way. I had to make an number of decisions about how to prepare them and how much. I decided, against much popular advice, to prepare them minimally. I wanted the music and the genre to speak for itself, and I was conscious not to over-hype the experience or make the students feel in any way that they couldn’t be totally honest with me about how they found it, especially if they genuinely didn’t enjoy it.

Since the story of Tosca is such a rollercoaster I told the students how it goes up to the arrest only, and left the ending for them to discover as Puccini intended it. For other operas I probably would have given them the whole story, but it was a great feeling to watch 16-year-old boys jump out of their seats in horror when La Tosca grabbed the knife in the middle of Act II!

The students did all find Act I very confusing and a little boring, which is not surprising as Tosca Act I is largely ‘scene-setting’. I had to explain it to them a little more in the interval, but this shows how the sometimes overly-complicated plots and backstories of opera can be a genuine barrier. Act II re-engaged the students through its fast pace and action, and by Act III they were visibly overwhelmed by the music.

I sensed a mixed response at the end. Some students were uncharacteristically quiet and reflective. Others were excited simply by looking into the pit and seeing Double Basses and Tubular Bells for the first time, whilst a number of students commented with awe on how “loud” the singing and orchestra were. They couldn’t believe it had been achieved without microphones. After this my colleagues reported that they students were buzzing around school for a good week afterwards, telling their friends about the Opera. On the night a few of the students asked me how and where they could find cheap opera tickets, and if they were allowed to go on their own!

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Image Source : englishtouringopera.org.uk

Much of the students’ ability to access and engage with this production was a direct result of the involvement of the English Touring Opera Education department. ETO puts on a large number of free pre-show talks and runs schemes for local singers, schools and children to get involved with opera as they move across the country. I cheekily contacted Education and Community Coordinator, Daniel Coelho, who went above and beyond for our students, even arranging for two members of the cast to speak to them ahead of their experience. Although unfortunately due to a traffic incident we were unable to attend this company’s dedication to opening the opera experience to all is at a level unrivalled by any scheme I have seen, not least because it reaches across the nation rather than being anchored to a specific opera house or theatre. The students arrived in time for the public pre-show talk and I am grateful to Director Blanche McIntyre for avoiding spoilers throughout! I asked her to advise our students how to cope if they were finding the opera difficult. Her response was kind and authentic. She reflected that people often make opera out to be more difficult than it actually is, and emphasised the importance of the story and emotions. Overall, she encouraged them to sit back and listen to the music, especially if everything else became ‘too much’.

I am thoroughly grateful to English Touring Opera for their commitment to high quality opera, low prices and their genuine ethos of outreach and education. Other companies, larger and wealthier and better recognised, could learn a great deal from them.

Review: The Grand Macabre – A Short Review

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Opera, anti-opera, or anti-anti-opera? Whichever it is, Le Grand Macabre is Ligeti’s only one, and it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to hear this work performed. With Simon Rattle heading up the LSO and a cast of top-class singers the musical realisation presented here is wonderful, as to be expected. The percussion section of the LSO dominated the stage (spatially and metaphorically) throughout with calm virtuosity. Musical and comic timing combined to send up the absurdity of modern life through the infamous car-horn fanfares and masterful execution of Ligeti’s challenging and diverse score.

Every member of the cast was impressive vocally. Ligeti makes huge demands on his singers, writing across and beyond conventional ranges to require sopranos to rattle more than a fifth below middle C, and basses to soar above their soprano duettists’ familiar tessitura. Frode Olsen as Astradamors merits special praise for particularly amazing acrobatics, stretching the lower ends of our pitch perception with solid, shuddering bass notes that beggared belief contrasted with tender and emotive tone in what would generally be considered high tenor or alto range.

The only peculiarity of this presentation is the ambiguity of its staging. As the LSO fills the Barbican stage, the dramatis personae have limited space in which to deliver the action. Physical movement is limited and props are minimal, not always to best effect. Sellars has chosen to use Ligeti’s intended burlesque-like “flea-market” into a sterile and slightly contrived nuclear emergency situation. The lack of set and the disembodiment of the action resulting from sharing the stage with the orchestra is compensated for by video projections. However I found these to be distracting, confusing and surplus to requirements, especially in the first half. A particularly awkward and random montage appeared to show international leaders shaking hands, with this short slice of action looped several times. Bearing no relation to the action in Ligeti’s work and not portraying any of the main characters, it was a confusing and frankly unwelcome distraction from the music and action onstage. There were some effective moments with videography in the second half, including projections of onstage characters and chilling maps of nuclear explosions driving home the apocalyptic and political messages of The Grand Macabre. On the whole I would have preferred this to have been dropped. Humour, intensity and the quality of relationships were lost, particularly between Mescalina and Astradamors as their BDSM interactions were awkwardly transposed to the context of a web exchange. Despite sensual and emotionally charged singing from Watts and Miller, removing physical interaction from the equation of Amando and Amanda’s relationship would make sense only in a concert-style presentation of the music.

The stars of this presentation were the LSO and the voices. Surround-sound use of the concert-hall space was extremely effective, with the voice of Venus (solo and chorus) swelling from the uppermost balconies and the powerful London Symphony Chorus swelling in the aisles of the stalls as the people of Breughelland. The music penetrated the listener’s being – much of this is, of course, Ligeti’s genius. I was pleased to have the opportunity to experience it, and look forward to experiencing a full and perhaps more faithful staging before too long.

 

Perfectly Beautiful, this imperfect humanity. Review: ROH – Der Rosenkavalier

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I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of ROH’s Production of Der Rosenkavalier, with Renée Fleming (Die Marschallin), Alice Coote (Octavian) and Sophie Bevan (Sophie) in the soprano lead roles. The artistry of these three was stunning.

I was unfortunately stupid enough to misremember the timing of this performance, and as a result my OperaBuddy and I missed the very start of the overture, watching the entire first act via a monitor amidst the clatterings of Covent Garden’s Amphitheatre Bar Staff, preparing for the first interval as they were. The microphone we were dependent upon was evidently in the pit. This was no great disappointment as the orchestra were in truly divine form under the baton of Andris Nelsons, however much of the singing (mostly Fleming and Coote) appeared to be lost. Interestingly all three of the other attendees I spoke to commented that Fleming was in fact surprisingly underpowered in this first half, and took a good while to warm up into the role vocally. Perhaps even great opera singers still get nervous on opening night. Nonetheless their unexpected comments were reflected quite accurately by what we experienced on the monitor. From our distance, mediated by screens and speakers, the first act appeared visually charming. The emotional divebomb that the text takes from sexual play to the musings and anxieties of a self-consciously fading rose was definite, tender and beautiful.

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Image Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

The gorgeousness of this masterwork by Strauss is such that it increases and develops all the more as the opera goes along. The relationships in Act II, potentially tricky to portray convincingly, could not have been doubted for a moment. Sophie Bevan’s endearing naïvety and soaring voice were absolutely entrancing. Coote was compelling beyond belief in her portrayal of the adolescent Octavian. She succeeded in relating his sincerity throughout his emotional struggle and the goodness of his heart, which is ultimately the source of the youthful ideals and illusions that lead to him falling in love with Sophie whilst not quite managing to relinquish his feelings of loyalty and commitment to the Marschallin.

I was a little distracted by the strange set design choices in Act II. From the grand, romantic era chamber of Act I we jumped to cartoonish and clumsy neo-classical backgrounds decked with both anachronistic, modern/minimalist black sofas and large canons (in Herr von Faninal’s living room?) that wobbled conspicuously when cast members jumped or sat on them. Bad dancing for no apparent reason in the background also proved a strange distraction. Despite the conflicting period indicators, the music remained at the highest level throughout. Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs was master over his wonderful voice, deplorable and funny without becoming a caricature, a rare achievement for this difficult character.

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Image Source: http://www.theguardian.com

In Act III the set again betrayed inconsistencies of vision with half-nude, can-can-esque prostitutes dawdling over early 20th Century style telephones, peculiar intermittent shifts to modern lighting (including at one point multicolour neon tubes) and a divergent reference to caged pole-dancing that bordered on the gratuitous. Had the portrayal of sexual excess been more thoughtfully incorporated into a distinctive and identifiable style it would have been more effective in its intended effect of communicating and denouncing the character and motivations of Baron Ochs.

Coote clearly revelled in the gender-bending genius of Strauss’s librettist von Hofmannsthal, starting this act as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman, seducing a man who has no idea that this woman is in fact a man in drag (did you follow that?). The production would however benefit from a stronger creative decision about whether it is to approach these passages as explicitly theatrical farce or with something more like (necessarily camp) seriousness.

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Image Source: http://www.theartsdesk.com

The Marschallin, of course, breaks the Burlesque before it disintegrates, selfessly saves Sophie from a miserable marriage and graciously blesses the union of this charming younger version of herself with her own, still much-adored Octavian. This was the moment Fleming came into her mythical own, living the role in alls its fullness. Her Marschallin was humble, painfully elegant, true in her renunciation and yet still you could almost taste her agony and the depth of her love for this silly boy Octavian. All this mingled in the rare and unique colours of her musical performance.

The trio at the end of this act is one of the most moving and honest expressions of humanity I have had the honour to experience. Fleming, Coote and Bevan wove togetherall the wonderful and complex nuances, elations and anxieties of love and sexual desire. My heart broke when, in the Marschallin’s presence, Coote as Octavian sang the same pledges of love to Sophie as he had to the Marschallin herself in the first act. This passage transcends reality because the librettist, and Strauss through his other-worldly music, distill human experience and offer it in all its imperfection. The three sopranos realised this vision irreproachably, and I for one was overwhelmed by the confounding sensations of being simultaneously lifted out of the world whilst witnessing it in a strangely naked human form before me.

This opera is a truly special work of art, and the casting and musical performance, including Nelsons in the pit, was especially exceptional. Only clearer vision from the staging and lighting could have improved this production. It is entirely the honour and credit of the musical artists that the anachronisms and holes in that aspect of the presentation did not detract in any significant way from the beautiful humanity they created together.

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Image Source: http://www.standard.co.uk

 

 

Absurdly Brilliant – Review: ROH – The Nose

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Giant tap-dancing noses, a Cross-dressed balalaika-playing prostitute, a man who has lost his nose and the Carnivalesque Russian society that will not help him get it back. Barrie Kosky brings Shostakovich’s first opera to the Royal Opera House stage for the first time with a production that raises this work to a whole new level.

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Image Source: http://www.theartsdesk.com

 

The English translation by David Pountney is funny, relatable and conveys the character of Gogol’s absurdist short story on which the Opera is based. Martin Winkler tackles the lead role with vocal delivery that is as characterful as it is technically exciting, with excellent comic timing throughout. The work hangs almost entirely between Winkler as the inexplicably noseless Collegiate Assessor and the Royal Opera House Chorus who, supported by a phenomenal cast of dancers, are powerful, funny and at their musical best.

This production is especially notable for its imaginative use of space, staging and perspective, focussing much of the action through a circular aperture (a nostril? Suggests my Opera Buddy) and a further round dais. The set is minimal but hugely effective, and the use of space through dance, movement around the stage and blocking is captivating throughout, despite this production’s choice to run without an interval. Indeed, with such pace and momentum an interval really is not required.

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Image Source: ft.com

The method of presentation and much of the stagecraft is obviously influenced by Brechtian techniques, linking to this avant garde tradition of theatre wherein the ideology was designed to support absurdist and critical reflections on serious social issues. Elaborate and nonsensical dance sequences interrupt the story at random moments, reducing the audience to laughter and providing space for critical reflection on the possible political implications of the performance whilst costumery, lighting and presentation styles come together to satirise here the various institutions of the media, the police and self-satisfied upper-class society. The layers of political commentary are complicated to the extreme when bringing together the possible meanings of Gogol’s original in the context of late 19th Century Russia and Shostakovich’s lifetime of artistic and ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. A fruitily English commentator shatters both the fourth wall of the stage and the Operatic dream-world to ask whether The Nose, as text or as opera, is about anything at all anyway.  Not originally part of Shostakovich’s opera, this directly reflects Gogol’s narrative voice at the end of the original pamphlet and further anchors this production in the German tradition of the avant-garde whilst signposting its Britishness in a self-derisive but definite claim.

The Nose has been long regarded as an opera that falls short of musical success, but the convincing delivery given here by the ROH Orchestra and Chorus convinces me otherwise, the momentum only slowing down in the Letter Scene – and those are notoriously difficult to pitch across all periods and styles of opera. Refusing to answer the question whether or not The Nose has anything specific or meaningful to say about society or politics then or now, this opera was an excellent choice as an access work via the student scheme and I highly recommend anybody of any background to catch it before it closes on November 9th. Bravo, Kosky and the Royal Opera House!

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Image Source: musicomh.com

Alternative Futures for Opera sung in English? – Review: English Touring Opera – Xerses

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English Touring Opera – Opera that moves. And indeed it does. Hailing as I do from Yorkshire I am from extremely warm towards a company that seeks to bring the Operatic art form to audiences outside of London. The company also breaks out of the institution of the Opera House, touring halls, theatres and similar venues from Exeter to Durham, Malvern to Snape Maltings and everywhere in between – although I was disappointed to hear that despite there not being a major Opera production from any other companies in my hometown of Hull since I was a small child, the council and theatres there didn’t permit the tour to extend to the banks of the Humber (local friends – what can we do together about this scandal?).

Of course any English tour however outreach focused must include London, where I attended the performance of Handel’s Xerses on Saturday 8th October. This production will be travelling the country (alongside others) until early next year.

 

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Image Source: http://www.exeternorthcott.co.uk

 

The ETO set up in London at the attractive yet intimate space of the Hackney Empire theatre. A pre-show talk with James Conway (Director of both this particular production and of ETO as a company) explained the basis of the 1940s interpretation, which was first put on to great acclaim in 2011. Conway presented an artistic ethos that focusses on this importance of the narrative story and taking seriously the characters of the operatic narrative, and this approach was effective in making believable the complex and potentially silly plot of this work. So many plots in Opera border on ridiculous and it is important to sustain them with dramatic commitment. Xerses did so, with a balanced and quirky lacing of humour. The famous opening aria Ombra mai fu (Under Thy Shade) remains beautiful, but is transformed into an extended pun as it is delivered to the ‘beloved Plane’ instead of a Plane Tree, simultaneously delivering a poignant comment on modern political leaders’ obsessions with aerial warfare. Sibling rivalry is rampant and extends to a slapstick bedroom scene between the warring sisters and an amusing but terrifyingly intense dynamic between the royal brothers, Xerses and Arsamenes.

The technical aspect of this production deserves special mention, with a set that was minimal without ever feeling lacking and lighting the balanced well the creation of mood and warmth with its role in guiding the focus of the audience to particular aspects of the staging and musical dialogues. This is particularly impressive for a company that tours.

The cast included some excellent singers, particularly Laura Mitchell as Romilda, Galina Averina as Atalanta and Clint van der Linde as Arsamenes. Averina delivered the most technically impressive soprano work, with the power in her vocal capacity used at appropriate musical opportunities and not simply for the sake of it. She crafted a character who though silly and spiteful was ultimately pitiable and relatable, which is not an easy task. Clint van der Linde successfully conveyed the deep conflict and pain of a man whose wilful and at times vindictive older brother is also his Lord and King. Although Julia Riley as Xerses noticeably lacked power and projection compared to the rest of the cast, the Act II duet between Xerses and Arsamenes was very special, both in terms of vocal technique and the masterful communications that were delivered through the music about the nature of fraternal relationships, the emotions of frustrated and intense love, and the experience of injustice each endures. For Arsamenes these are injustices of hierarchy and the precedence of his brother’s birth; for Xerses it is the injustice of unrequited love.

 

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Image Source: http://www.ft.com

 

The presentation of the story was unfortunately slightly marred by issues of intelligibility. I heard a number of individuals discussing the issue of struggling to understand during the interval, and this has been picked up on in other reviews – despite the diction being some of the clearest and most precise I have heard. The English Touring Opera chooses not to use subtitles as much as possible, I assume because subtitling unavoidably detracts attention from stage action and often leads to a distracted or partial theatrical experience. However within the Hackney Empire space the diction of anything sung behind the middle of the stage was sadly lost, and even given my substantial experience of the classical voice there were times when I only was able to catch the libretto because of Handel’s continued use of text repetition. I would encourage those who are less confident in understanding the classical voice to make sure they read up on the storyline before attending to facilitate getting their head around any moments that are partially obscured in this way.

This raises a problem for classical music that is much more general, since I have recently come to realise that the vast majority of people find it extremely difficult to parse words from classical singing, however good the diction is. I have recently been sharing a great deal of performances with people who are not accustomed to listening to the classical voice, and passages that find crystal clear are completely unintelligible to them. Furthermore a Catch-22 situation is generated since it takes a great deal of effort and concentration for those less accustomed to classical song to parse words and meaning from it, which distracts them from the musical or theatrical content whilst also potentially detracting from their enjoyment of the overall experience. Given that those with lower exposure to classical music are a great part of ETO’s outreach and target audience, and these are the people who find it most difficult to interpret the sung texts, I conclude that despite laudable and understandable artistic ideals it may be of significant importance for the ETO to reconsider their approach to subtitling in future productions. For this tour I hope that the acoustics of the other venues will be a little kinder to both the cast and those experiencing the classical voice from a fresher perspective, and more broadly I hope that musicians can find creative ways to solve the conundrum of accessibility and maintaining an optimum experience of the classical voice.

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I came away from the ETO production of Xerses with my confidence refreshed in the future of Opera sung in English. I was sincerely impressed by the passion and vision delivered by ETO Director James Conway in his pre-show talk, and am sympathetic to the many exceptional outreach projects for which the ETO is noteworthy.

In each location of the tour the company is providing a free workshop to secondary school children allowing them to watch a rehearsal and go backstage to understand what is involved in putting an opera together. My own students benefited from this in London, and returned more deeply enthused with opera as an art form and more aware of its particular challenges and complexities. Alongside the three baroque operas touring this season are performances of Bach’s St. John Passion, bringing local amateur choirs from diverse backgrounds (gospel, university, community) together with the ETO team. This project involves groups in music-making larger than themselves and is also an exploration of the meaning of the St. John Passion in today’s largely but not entirely secular context, where music’s origins and its destinations have become apparently separated. The director is especially keen on access and diversity, for those who will not have experienced this music before, and who will find emotional, intellectual and other levels of personal fulfilment and enrichment through the opportunity to perform and be exposed to it.

Amidst generalised lack of funding for operatic projects and almost hysterical uncertainty surrounding the future of the ENO there is real reason to fear for English-sung Opera in the present moment. However ETO’s fresh, grounded and democratic approach to the art-form has significantly alleviated my concerns. I may even be so bold as to suggest that, whilst the eyes of the musical community are focussed on the plight of larger and longer-standing organisations, the future of opera sung in English may be moving in a completely different and very welcome direction.

Opera Down The Pub – Review: Kings Head Theatre – La Bohème

Every night until 8th October something fantastic is happening in the small theatre at the back of The Kings Head pub in Islington – Puccini’s La Bohème is being performed by a talented and switched-on cast who are bringing this enormous work to a new kind of audience on a totally new set of terms.

The intimacy of the Kings Head Theatre itself gives this production its particular intrigue, and indeed it has been developed and adapted by a resident creative team in conversation with the space. The libretto[1] has been radically but brilliantly reworked, stripping the cast back to the four key characters, Mimi and Ralph (i.e. Rodolfo in the original) and Mark (Marcello) and Musetta. This sharpens the focus on the ups and downs of these two toxic and intense relationships, involving the audience in their joys and conflicts with almost uncomfortable immediacy – for some gentlemen on the front row, quite literally!

The adapted storyline translates Puccini’s consumptive and delicate Mimi into a heroin addict whose initially casual habits lead to the fracturing of an otherwise loving relationship with Ralph and her dramatic and desperately undignified demise. This is the most central and focused of several comments on contemporary social issues, alongside pointed references to city pollution, London’s spiralling rents and ambivalent uses of social media. Usually such alterations personally make me squirm, but this version by King’s Head Artistic Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott, who plays Mimi in one of the two casts, makes for creasingly funny moments throughout the first half. In addition to the surface humour, which does occasionally border on the excessively silly, there are some excellent inward-facing tongue-in-cheek moments for those who know the original and the musical style of Puccini himself. The second half, which abandons the punning and swearing to go for the meat of the tragic storyline, is especially powerful.

The quality of the singing and musicianship is at the highest standard. Becca Marriott (Mimi) and Thomas Humphreys (Mark) particularly shone vocally – I’ll be watching their futures with interest. Meanwhile Matthew Kimble’s presentation of Ralph’s first act aria, equivalent to the iconic Che Gelida Manina (What cold hands!) was a moving emotional highlight. Although the diction is clear from all the cast members throughout I recommend purchasing a £3 programme to assist following the moments where, in duets and trios, characters sing simultaneously with different texts. I would advise, however, trying not to read ahead from what is being sung – I find it takes the edge of the humour or poignancy if you know what’s coming.

To be so physically close to music at this level is thrilling in itself[2]. At this range the soaring voices literally resound through your body and listening becomes a more entire experience. Every minute detail of the actors’ faces is clear to everybody. The reduction of the La Bohème score to piano and cello was effective and didn’t feel lacking in the context of this production.

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The King’s Head Theatre production of La Bohème is an excellent introduction to opera for those who have yet to experience it, and an exciting development in the shape and character of the craft. Madame Butterfly is coming up in the new year and previous productions at this location including Pagliacci, The Barber of Seville and The Elixir of Love, staged during the residency of the company OperaUpClose. The theatre at Kings Head is reliant on making £100 000 in addition to ticket sales annually, so if you would like the opportunity to go see a production in this style don’t dither about buying a ticket. At a running time of 1h 55min including interval this production is a perfect evening out, even on a weeknight. La Bohème at The King’s Head will challenge your perceptions of what Opera can and should be, whilst keeping you feeling alive through the strong presentation of Puccini’s masterful music.

 

[1] Text of the Opera, the ‘lyrics’ if you will.

[2] The proximity reminded me of the exhilarating experience of Multi-Story Orchestra in Peckham, where you’re so close to the orchestra at the front that the Violin bows poking your eyes out is a genuine risk. Do explore this exceptional project and annual music festival for similar experiences to the ones described at The Kings Head.